- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2001

Maryland's top veterinarian said yesterday he wants to prepare for an outbreak of the highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease, which could damage the state's $11 billion-a-year farming industry.

Roger Olson, state veterinarian for the Maryland Department of Agriculture, proposed conducting a drill the same day a top federal official said the chances are "quite great" the disease which has devastated British livestock will surface in the United States.

Speaking at a conference of veterinarians in College Park, Dr. Olson said the drill could be a "tabletop scenario," in which the state's top farming, health and law-enforcement agents meet to map out a response plan, or it could be a "mock exercise" in which agents practice their response to an outbreak at one of the state's almost 900 dairy farms.

"We must be prepared logistically to handle this," Dr. Olson said. He does not know how much a drill would cost.

So far, Maryland has focused on educating its farmers on ways to prevent foot-and-mouth disease, sometimes called hoof-and-mouth disease. Dr. Olson recently sent a letter to 5,000 Maryland farmers encouraging them to monitor their livestock for symptoms.

Foot-and-mouth disease is harmless to humans, but its effects on cloven-hoofed animals, such as cows, pigs and sheep, are severe. It is usually not fatal, but it causes animals to lose weight.

Symptoms include fever and blister-like lesions in an animal's mouth and on its hoofs and teats.

In Britain and other European countries, herds are being destroyed to prevent the spread of the disease. It spread to Northern Ireland over the weekend.

Virginia said yesterday it is considering drills similar to those proposed in Maryland. North Carolina conducted a tabletop exercise March 29, one day before it sent four pigs to a federal lab to be tested for the disease. The results were negative.

Carlton Quarter, Virginia's commissioner for agriculture and consumer services, said his state worries a mock exercise could scare its residents.

"The disease is so devastating, even the most subtle things you do causes panic. When you have people suiting up in moon suits [for a mock exercise], it causes panic," he said.

If the virus surfaced in the United States, it could cost the nation $5 billion in beef and pork exports, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Several federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, conducted a tabletop exercise last week to test their ability to respond to a worst-case scenario, in which the disease broke out in Iowa and spread to three other states.

The agencies determined it would require 50,000 people, including military personnel, to contain the disease.

"In the worst-case scenario, all the agencies saw that it was overwhelming. I don't think this was a surprise," said Kevin Herglotz, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The director of the only U.S. lab that studies and tests for foot-and-mouth disease said yesterday the chances of an outbreak in the United States are "quite great," given the amount of people traveling between this country and Britain.

"It's only through the diligence of the people at the various ports of entry that we've been able to keep it out. I'll have to add also luck," said David Huxsoll, director of the Agriculture Department's Plum Island laboratory, off Long Island, N.Y.

The disease is common throughout most of the world, including South America, but it has not been found in the United States since 1929.

Mr. Herglotz said the United States has "adequate resources" to keep the United States free of the disease.

The USDA has banned imports of livestock and raw meat from the European Union and has increased inspections of incoming airline passengers. The department has tacked on $3 airfare surcharges to pay for extra inspectors.

During its tabletop exercise last week, the agency asked other federal departments and agencies to identify the resources that would be available to combat an outbreak.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is making preparations to coordinate the federal response to an outbreak in much the same way it responds to hurricanes and other natural disasters, according to agency spokeswoman Holly Harrington.

The department organized a more extensive exercise in the fall involving Canada and Mexico that included simulated outbreaks in south Texas and Canada.

Because of the government's precautions, a foot-and-mouth outbreak now "is probably less likely than it was a year or two years ago," said Chuck Lambert, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Charles Mebus, former director of the Foreign Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratories at Plum Island, said yesterday that bioterrorists may present the biggest threat to the United States.

"My biggest concern is some group that wants to put the U.S. at a big disadvantage by deliberately introducing the disease," he said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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